Iran’s secretive Quds Force, accused by the United States of arming Iraqi militants with deadly bomb-making material, has built up an extensive network in the war-torn country, recruiting Iraqis and supporting not only Shiite militias but also Shiites allied with Washington.
Still unclear, however, is how closely Iran’s top leadership is directing the Quds Force’s operations — and whether Iran has intended for its help to Shiite militias to be turned against U.S. forces.
Iran likely does not want a direct confrontation with American troops in Iraq but is backing militiamen to ensure Shiites win any future civil war with Iraqi Sunnis after the Americans leave, several experts said Thursday.
The Quds Force’s role underlines how deeply enmeshed Iran is in its neighbor — and how the U.S. could face resistance even from its allies in Iraq if it tries to uproot Iran’s influence in the country.
The Quds (pronounced “KOHds”) Force — the name means “Jerusalem” in Farsi and Arabic — is the most elite and covert of Iran’s military branches. Over the past two decades, the corps is believed to have helped arm and train the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon, Islamic fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and even Sudanese troops fighting in south Sudan.
The force is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which are separate from the regular military, report directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and are tasked with protecting the Islamic government. The Quds Force, formed in the 1980s and picked from the very best of the Guards, is its special branch for operations outside Iran.
“What Quds does is very specialized, the most dangerous work, operating underground,” said Mahan Abedin, an Iran expert and the research director at the London-based Center for the Study of Terrorism.
U.S. leveling accusations
Now the Bush administration is accusing the force of stirring up turmoil in Iraq.
Its key piece of evidence: “explosively formed projectiles,” sophisticated roadside bombs that fire a slug of molten metal that can penetrate armored vehicles. The U.S. military says the Quds Force provided the materials to Iraqi Shiite militias, which used them to attack Americans.
To make their case, U.S. military officials this week showed reporters in Baghdad pieces of EFP equipment, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades that they said were directly traceable to Iranian manufacture.
President Bush told reporters Wednesday he could “say with certainty” that the Quds Force was providing the equipment to militants.
“What we don’t know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did,” Bush said.
What is Tehran's involvement?
Iran has denied the U.S. accusations. But the question of what the Quds Force and other Iranian operatives are doing in Iraq and how much direction they receive from Iran’s top leadership has become a key issue.
The Bush administration has increasingly blamed Iran for Iraq’s chaos and taken a more confrontational stance, vowing to stop any intervention. That has raised worries among some Democrats in Washington that the administration is building a case for military action against Iran, a claim Bush denies.
The chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said Iranian and Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody said in interrogations that “the Quds Force provides support to extremist groups here in Iraq both in the forms of money and in weaponry.”
U.S. forces arrested six Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January, one of whom military officials say is the Quds Forces’ operational commander in Iraq, Mohsin Chizari.
“All of these efforts in which we have picked up these Quds Force officers are part of these efforts in which to disrupt these supply networks,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday at a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. military officials have said the Quds Force is supplying “rogue elements” of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia led by an anti-American cleric.
A role beyond insurgency
But the Quds Force’s help appears to go beyond militiamen attacking U.S. troops. It supplies training and some weapons to the Badr Brigade — a militia linked to Iraq’s biggest Shiite political party — and smaller Shiite factions in the south, an official with a Shiite political party in Iraq who has close knowledge of militia activity told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
The Badr Brigade is linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the party headed by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, who met with Bush at the White House in December.
America’s Kurdish allies also have past links with the Quds Force, which helped them against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s. Notably, the six Iranians seized by U.S. troops were in Kurdish-controlled Irbil.
In addition to supplying weapons to Iraqi militias, the Quds Force has been recruiting Iraqi Shiites, giving them up to $150 a month and sending some to Iran for training, the Shiite political party official told the AP.
Concern over offensive weapons
Caldwell acknowledged that prisoners had said, under interrogation, that Quds operatives were supplying weapons to factions in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. He said U.S. officials had asked political parties and government officials about the material.
“Some explained that there is a need for certain weaponry to come in for protection purposes,” he told a Baghdad news conference Wednesday. “The concern we had ... is that on that list were sniper rifles, mortars and some elements that are clearly offensive in nature.”
At most, Iran’s entire Quds Force probably numbers only about 2,000 — only about 800 of whom are core operatives, according to Abedin, the expert at the London-based think tank.
Abedin doubted the Quds Force was directly giving militias weapons, arguing that militias have their own domestic networks for building and obtaining weapons. But he said Quds was undoubtedly was providing intelligence and other organizational help.
“It would be very incriminating and dangerous for Iran to directly supply weapons to the militias, and it’s not a part of Iranian policy to directly confront the Americans,” he said.
Instead, the goal is likely “to enable these armed formations ... to gain an advantage over their Sunni rivals” in the battle for power that Iran expects could erupt later.
“They are looking to beyond, when the Americans withdraw,” he said. “They see the Shiite militias as natural allies.”